Making waves in Silicon Valley
John Tumbleston ’06 is helping attract Elon alumni talent to the global center of the tech industry.
By Owen Covington
Within the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, John Tumbleston ’06 is used to seeing credentials from some of the country’s top technology schools. It’s much rarer for him to find an Elon diploma hanging on the wall in this global center of the tech industry. But that’s something Tumbleston, head of print development for the 3D printing firm Carbon, would like to change.
“We have a lot of representation here in Silicon Valley from schools like MIT and Stanford, and all these big schools, so I want to show what those of us from Elon can do,” says Tumbleston, who in 2014 received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Elon College, the College of Arts & Sciences.
Tumbleston has already doubled the number of Elon alumni employed by his company, which as a startup was based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Keeping in close contact with professors in the Department of Physics, Tumbleston helped attract Connor TeVault ’16 to a summer internship at Carbon that led to a full-time position as a systems integration engineer. And he intends to tap into top Elon talent again in the future. “Elon means a lot to me for so many different reasons,” he says.
Tumbleston grew up in the North Carolina mountain city of Boone, and when he began looking at colleges, he searched for a place that could satisfy his dual passions of running and science. He found it at Elon, where he was part of the Teaching Fellows program and was a star cross country runner before earning his degree in physics and science education. He was the A.L. Hook Scholar-Athlete of the Year in 2005 and was named to ESPN’s Academic All-America Men’s Track and Field/Cross Country first team twice during his time at Elon.
Through faculty members like Jimmie Agnew, Kyle Altmann, Pranab Das, Tony Crider and Martin Kamela he developed a love of physics. “I knew I liked science when I started at Elon, but I didn’t know which way I wanted to go,” Tumbleston says. “One thing that was so helpful to me at Elon was all the attention I got from the professors. The attention they gave me and the interest they had in my development was so important to me.”
During graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Tumbleston focused on solar energy research. Connections he built while obtaining his doctorate in physics from UNC and during postdoctoral work at N.C. State University would lead him to the Chapel Hill startup EIPI Systems that would become Carbon. The company has developed an innovative method for 3D printing that uses ultraviolet light and oxygen to continuously grow polymer parts. While a move from solar energy to three-dimensional printing might seem to the layman to be a stretch, it wasn’t for Tumbleston. “I had done a lot of research to use light to move electrons around,” he says. “At Carbon, we use light to get oxygen and materials to move around like we want them to.”
In 2014 Tumbleston headed to Redwood City, California, as Carbon relocated to Silicon Valley to be closer to some of those funding the company as well as to attract top talent from the market. And while the company draws from what Tumbleston says is a “great pool of talent,” the Elon graduate has also looked back to his alma mater to offer young scientists an opportunity. TeVault was a senior when he first chatted with Tumbleston about the Carbon internship via Skype. The summer before his sophomore year he had bought parts to make his own 3D printer, and had been deeply involved in the Maker Hub while at Elon. He looks back to his senior capstone project, which examined the future of the automotive industry, as well as the breadth of courses he took beyond physics as helping create the foundation he needs to be part of Silicon Valley. “Elon’s diversity of core classes really prepares you to head out into the workforce,” TeVault says.
Tumbleston echoed those thoughts, saying that while his peers within Carbon or at other companies who graduated from large research institutions may have delved deeper into the science as undergraduates, Elon prepared him to think more broadly and exposed him to a more creative approach to research. “I think when it comes to science and conducting research, some of the most important things are creativity, the ability to think outside the box and how to manage your time,” Tumbleston says. “These are all things that are central to a liberal arts education.”